A few years ago I was listening to NPR while driving, and I almost pulled the car over to a stop, so great was my enthusiasm for what I’d just heard. When I got home, I found a recording of the segment online and insisted that one of my housemates listen to it with me. “A Lutheran pastor just defended the doctrine of sin on public radio!” I gushed. “And then preached the gospel!”
The pastor I heard was Nadia Bolz-Weber, the now-famous foul-mouthed, tattoo-festooned recovering alcoholic and former stand-up comic who founded Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints, a progressive Lutheran congregation that has become known as a haven for ex-evangelicals and other religious or not-so-religious misfits. Here is part of what she said on the air that day:
When [the people of my congregation] come to church, they need a place where they can experience, like, confession and absolution—like, where they can confess the ways in which they can’t manage to fix everything and they can’t live up to their own values and the ways they’ve failed and hear that sort of ringing word of forgiveness and absolution. They need to hear the gospel and receive the Eucharist.
It’s not unusual to hear religious types talk about human fallibility and the need for affirmation or acceptance. But to hear someone say to a largely secular audience that we need to confess our wrongs, admit our guilt, and be absolved—well, that’s much stronger, and usually more distasteful, medicine. Ultimately, though, it’s a message that makes true healing possible because it diagnoses our wayward condition unblinkingly, rather than politely papering over it.
Doing Away with Absolution
Unfortunately, the pastor who talked up the liberation that comes from admitting you’re in the wrong now seems more interested in helping people understand why they don’t need to. In her new book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, Bolz-Weber is out to set Christians free from the angst and humiliation churches have often foisted on them because of their sexual proclivities and behaviors. But the way the book goes about doing so is by rejecting wholesale the idea of “sexual purity” and, with it, the need to confess sexual transgression. In one of the book’s most straightforward moments, Bolz-Weber sums up her message like this:
I’m here to tell you: unless your sexual desires are for minors or animals, or your sexual choices are hurting you or those you love, those desires are not something you need to “struggle with.” They are something to listen to, make decisions about, explore, perhaps have caution about. But struggle with? Fight against? Make enemies of? No.
The message of Shameless, in short, is that feeling like a transgressor never bears the seeds of redemption, and the way to flourishing lies in throwing out any standard that isn’t giving you life.
Shameless recounts story after story of people who have ditched old Christian rules around sex and have, as a result, experienced a newfound, reputedly healthy shamelessness. In one chapter, for instance, an ex-Pentecostal gay woman trying to rebuild her faith in the wake of spiritual abuse and self-harm relates to Bolz-Weber how she tore out from her childhood Bible the various passages that prohibit gay sex and threw them into a bonfire. Then, carefully removing the four Gospels and clutching them to her heart, she went ahead and threw the rest of the Bible in too. (Bolz-Weber defends her by saying, “The Gospels are the canon within the canon. … The closer a text of the Bible is to [the story of Jesus] or to the heart of that story’s message, the more authority it has. The farther away it is, the less its authority.”)
Another chapter recounts Bolz-Weber’s anguished decision to have an abortion at age 24. “My choice destroyed me for a time,” she writes, “though not because I thought I’d committed a horrible sin or because I felt ashamed.” When she finally decided to talk about her choice with her fellow teachers at a Christian retreat center, Bolz-Weber told the room: “I never regretted [my choice], because I knew it was the right decision for me.” Guilt is overcome here—but through self-assertion rather than divine absolution. Bolz-Weber doesn’t feel she needs forgiveness, in this instance at least.
According to Shameless, the voice of judgment in the Garden of Eden that diagnosed Adam and Eve as rebels wasn’t God’s. “Who told you that your sexual expression is something to be ashamed of?” Bolz-Weber has God ask the cowering pair of humans. And then she answers: “My money is on the snake. And he’s a damned liar.”
A Time for Self-Scrutiny
In an interview published in the Catholic magazine Commonweal several years ago, Bolz-Weber put her finger on one of the paradoxes, as she called it, of her own Lutheran theology. “We’re simultaneously sinner and saint, 100 percent of both all the time,” she said, echoing Luther’s famous slogan, simul iustus et peccator.
But she went on to note what that theology means for preaching: “[I]f you really just think you’re a saint, maybe the gospel is to say you’re a sinner.” In other words, when faced with people who would prefer to whittle the law’s demands down to a size that fits their behavior rather than admit guilt and ask for mercy, a preacher needs to be prepared to deliver bad news before proclaiming the end of shame. Preaching that is true to the gospel of Jesus Christ “does away with two contemporary fictions,” says Richard Lischer, another Lutheran minister: “that God has quit judging sin; and that men and women find peace by learning how to feel good about themselves.” True shamelessness—gospel shamelessness—comes not from making peace with your present identity and activity and declaring yourself free from shame. It comes instead from hearing a word from outside yourself and beyond your own head: God’s promise of free forgiveness and new life through Christ.
What happened in between Bolz-Weber’s insistence that the gospel means recognizing that we’re all sinners and her new drumbeat in Shameless that, so long as the sex we have is consensual and marked by mutual concern, we have nothing ever to be ashamed of?
It would be easy, at this juncture, to point a finger at the thinness of much of what is labeled “progressive” theology these days in order to account for the flaws in Shameless. In this progressive Christianity, it often seems that a spirituality of the goodness of creation downplays—or bypasses altogether—any serious consideration of our fallenness. Popular progressive ways of distinguishing the Mosaic law and the legalisms of the apostle Paul from the good news that Jesus preached, with the former considered nitpicky and vindictive and the latter portrayed as no-strings-attached, often verge on anti-Judaism and drive a wedge between Jesus and the spokespersons he appointed to carry on his ministry. And what the theologian D. Stephen Long has called “a commitment to ‘progressive revelation,’ where some theologians proclaim with thoroughgoing certitude what God is doing in the world today and how it differs with what God was thought to have worked in previous times,” often permits present experience to seem clear as glass compared to the murky complexity of ancient Scripture. And, indeed, all these lamentable progressive tendencies are present in abundance in Shameless.
But the harder task would be for more conservative, traditionalist readers like me—who still think that sexual purity is a scriptural (and therefore indispensable) category and that the biblical rules against, say, premarital and extramarital sex are still binding on believers today—to take Shameless as an occasion to practice some self-scrutiny and ask ourselves whether our own failings and hypocrisies might be part of what gives a book like this its powerful appeal.
Towards the beginning of the book, Bolz-Weber tells a story that will be familiar to anyone who was reared in an evangelical youth group. Tim and Sara, two of Bolz-Weber’s parishioners, had grown up hearing that if you follow God’s blueprint for sexual holiness, marital bliss will be your reward. According to Bolz-Weber, “They had been told that if they followed the rules, they would have more satisfying and exciting sex than couples who’d had sex before marriage.” But when that turned out not to be the case, both Tim and Sara experienced disappointment, frustration, and self-doubt.
“Let us consider the harm that has been caused in God’s name,” Bolz-Weber urges in light of stories like Tim and Sara’s. Why has the church so often made false promises of amazing sex to people who “do the right thing,” while ignoring, scolding, or even rejecting those who don’t? Christians who continue to hold to Christianity’s traditional sexual ethics need to engage with questions like these—and do the painful, penitential work of excavating our own complicity in the sexual brokenness we might prefer to offload onto others.
Insofar as Shameless may inspire us to undertake that work, we should be grateful for it. But insofar as it perpetuates the myth that some of us have no sexual sins to be ashamed of, it reads like one more sad substitute for the truly shame-defeating word of absolution that the gospel of Jesus Christ offers to anyone willing to take their place in the company of sinners.
Wesley Hill is associate professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.